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Take a break from the big smoke and enjoy the tranquil ambience of Vientiane. The quaint capital of Laos lies on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, where fishermen still ply their trade. Granted, Vientiane isn’t a metropolis by Southeast Asian standards, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in charm. Don’t be fooled by Vientiane’s serene demeanour; you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes time to paint the town red. Rachel Shue takes you around this ethnically and culturally diverse city in 72 hours. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Rachel is a freelance writer based in Barcelona, Spain. She has previously lived in Laos' Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Even if you’re not religious, rising early at dawn to see lines of monks waiting for gifts from locals is a sight worth seeing. Most people offer rice or khanom (sweets). If you feel inclined, buy some banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and place some in each of the monks’ bamboo rice baskets.After nourishing your soul, it’s time to feed your stomach. Craving a traditional Asian breakfast? Head to a street stall for Vietnamese-style coffee and a fresh, steaming bowl of congee or phở. Otherwise, there are plenty of places to feast on a full fry-up. Enjoy a fresh fruit juice, omelette, or a croissant at French café Le Petit Jardin. Many expats frequent Joma Bakery, which is the closest thing you’ll find to Starbucks, with specialised coffees and treats like cream cheese bagels and cinnamon rolls.Then, step into a tuk-tuk and head north to the golden That Luang Temple. A symbol of Lao sovereignty, the temple marks the then Khmer empire’s conversion to Buddhism as the formal religion.
Make your way south to the Asian Arc de Triomph called Patuxai on Lane Xang, the main thoroughfare that means ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. Climb to the top to get a 360-degree aerial view of the city.Afterwards, wander down to the Mekong and note how architectural remnants of colonial France share the scene with traditional Buddhist temples. Get a glimpse of the past visiting the impressive Wat Sisaket, Wat Simuang, and the Presidential Palace.
Treat your tastebuds to some traditional green papaya salad (tammakung). Sour, spicy, and tangy, the grated green papaya is mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, and chilli. Other local dishes include larb, a spicy minced pork dish, and khao piak sen, a rice noodle soup dish also common in Vietnam. Wash it down with a BeerLao or a fresh fruit shake or juice.Afterwards, bargain with a tuk-tuk driver to take you to Buddha Park, home to some 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues, including the famous 40-metre reclining Buddha. Or check out the Lao Textile Museum to learn more about the history of weaving and Lao design.
Rent a bike and cycle along the banks of the Mekong. Stop for a fresh fruit shake and sit down to see the sun set over the Mekong.If you fancy some international cuisine, La Cave des Chauteaux near Nam Phu serves excellent French food, while Villa Opera is the place to go for pasta, steaks, and first-class wines. Sticky Fingers offers decent fish and chips, and burgers. Yokohama’s top-notch traditional Japanese cuisine deserves the accolades it gets, but make a reservation, as this cosy nook fills up quickly. Try Easy Bar for tasty Middle Eastern fare.For something more formal, make your way to the Don Chan Palace Hotel, situated on a small island in the middle of the Mekong River. Ascend to the stately Top Club that affords a breathtaking view of Vientiane. Enjoy dinner and a drink or two at the highest point in the city.Not ready to go home yet? Head west of the centre to Mark Two nightclub and karaoke bar and belt out some classics, or just watch some wannabe popstars do their thing while sipping a cocktail.
Wake up early and head to Vang Vieng on a four-hour bus ride. After arriving, have a light lunch at the Organic Farm and see how they make eco-friendly products. From mulberry ice cream to silk handicrafts, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sustainable entrepreneurship of the venture.Vang Vieng is an adventurer’s paradise. Do a hike, rock climb, or drift down the Nam Song River in a rubber tube. Want to explore? Visit limestone caves, nearby villages to see how rice whisky is made, or simply rent a bike and cycle through the rice paddies while admiring the impressive karst mountain backdrop. Remember to book a guide a few days ahead to ensure availability.When the sun goes down, head to a masseur and choose from a foot-and-leg massage or full body treatment to soothe your sore limbs and weary muscles.
After some well-deserved relaxation time, enjoy a gin and tonic on the banks of the tranquil Nam Song River and dinner at one of the ubiquitous backpacker restaurants in town.
Return to Vientiane, stopping at Tha Ngon floating river restaurant for lunch. It’s a pleasant way to break up the journey, kicking back on the river, and enjoying local Lao food with friends. When you arrive back in town, have a rest after the long drive, before heading out to do some last-minute souvenir shopping.
Don’t miss the famous night market along the Mekong. Bargain for some traditional sinh silk fabrics for skirts, wall hangings, or table runners. Browse for woven rattan and bamboo baskets, silver jewellery, and wooden carvings.For dinner, sit down at one of the riverside restaurants and tuck into freshly-grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass, or some tasty morning glory with sticky rice and jaew, a chilli paste condiment to spice up your dish.Having refuelled, make your way to one of two bowling alleys in the city centre: Blu-O-Rhythm, the slick and shiny new-kid-on-the-block, or the local favourite, Lao Bowling Centre. The latter may not be as modern, but it’s cheap and always cheerful. Plus, adjoined you’ll find a huge pool and billiards area with three-quarter and full-size tables.
Getting there: It’s best to combine your holiday with a trip to Bangkok, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, or Kunming. There are also direct flights from Siem Reap and Shanghai. Alternatively, take the train from Bangkok to Nong Khai and enter Laos by crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, or one of several other land border crossings from China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Visas: All Hong Kong passport holders will require a visa. A 30-day tourist visa can be issued on arrival at Wattay International Airport and at the border crossing between Thailand and Laos if you’re taking the train to Nong Khai. If you want to stay for longer, apply for a visa in advance from the Laotian Consulate.
International calling code: +856
Language: Lao is the national language. You should be able to be understood in Thai or Vietnamese and English in the main tourist areas.
Timezone: UTC+7 — the same timezone as Bangkok and an hour behind Hong Kong.
Electrical plug type: Although Laos uses several different types of plugs, Type F is the most common. In any case, bring a multi-adaptor.
Currency: Lao kip (LAK) is the official currency, but you can use Thai baht and US dollars fairly widely. It’s normally around 10,000 kip to US$1. You’ll need cash and small notes to get around the rural areas and also pay tips, tuk-tuk drivers, and vendors at small stores and street food stalls.
Getting around: Consider renting a bicycle to get around town, and scooters for short trips outside the centre. Walking around is pleasant and easy, while tuk-tuks are cheap and plentiful. Remember that the Thai drive on the left-hand side of the road (like the British) and the Lao drive on the right-hand side of the road (like Americans).
Weather: It’s never really cold in Vientiane, but don’t forget to rug up at night in the dry season, although the rains are reserved for the monsoon season. Temperatures average from mid-teens to mid-twenties in winter, rising to 30+ degrees celsius in the wet season.